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MILWAUKEE — Kyle Hendricks has maintained all season, even as far back as spring training, that his focus in each and every outing would be to establish the fastball down and away early.
That’s the main objective. If he’s not able to locate it, then it’s even tougher for him to really attack hitters the way he wants to, since his changeup and curveball play off of his four-seamer and sinker.
If you take a look at the heatmaps from each of his first four starts this season, there’s a correlation between his ability to get the fastball down and his results in a specific outing. When he’s able to establish it well, as he did on Saturday against the Pirates and on Opening Day against the Brewers, he has a lot more success (12 1/3 innings, nine strikeouts, seven hits and just one run allowed combined). However, when he struggles a bit to establish it down, like he did on April 18 against the Rays and on April 13 in Pittsburgh, the box score isn’t as pretty (eight innings, 10 strikeouts, 12 hits and eight runs allowed).
“Everything works off (the fastball) for me,” Hendricks said following the Cubs’ 11-1 loss to the Brewers on Friday. “I’m either not hitting it or I’m falling behind, and that’s just not a good recipe for pitching. … I know when I’m good, I know when I’m bad. I just gotta get more of the good.”
On Friday at American Family Field, it was more of the bad for Hendricks.
He labored through his third outing of the year throwing less than five innings, giving up six runs over 4 1/3 frames while the Brewers put on a mini Home Run Derby for the crowd in Milwaukee.
First, there was Jace Peterson, who put the Brewers up 3-0 with a two-run shot in the second. The next inning, Andrew McCutchen followed up with a solo homer to deep left field to make it a four-run game. Both pitches came on four-seamers up and in, and even though he is cognizant of establishing the low fastball, those were actually the locations he wanted to hit.
“All it tells me is it’s a little flat, probably,” Hendricks said. “If I’m hitting location and still finding a lot of barrel, they can see it more the whole way and it’s pretty flat. So that’s all it’s telling me, which reaffirms the mechanical things that I’m doing. But yeah, the mental focus and being there pitch to pitch was there, and I did execute, I would say. I got the pitch where I wanted to, it’s just the action of it. It’s got to be better.”
While those might just be “tip your cap” moments for Hendricks, he knows how challenging it can be for him when he’s not getting his fastball down and away consistently.
The following are images (per Baseball Savant) that show the combined heatmaps of Hendricks’ four-seamer and sinker against hitters on both sides of the plate (first image is righties, second is lefties).
From those heatmaps, it’s clear that Hendricks wasn’t able to get his fastballs down consistently, and as the individual exit velocities against the two pitches show — 94.7 mph average on six balls in play against the sinker, 100 mph average on four balls in play against the fastball — he just couldn’t find success.
“I feel like I am in a good spot,” Hendricks said. “When I’m doing the right things and things I’ve been working on, it’s right. I see angle, I see bad swings come off the end of the bat.”
At the moment, there’s no need to panic around Hendricks. He’s a veteran, a World Series champion and someone who’s been in the Cy Young conversation before. He knows what it takes to be at his best, and right now, it’s about working to get to that point.
“We trust Kyle. His resume speaks for itself,” manager David Ross said. “He’ll analyze it. He’ll come back to work tomorrow and get busy getting back into rhythm. I think there’s a couple things that we’ll try to look at, just making sure he’s staying consistent with what he does well and we’re maximizing that.”
The inconsistency of his starts is what’s bugging him, though. He’s had times where he felt like “The Professor” the Cubs know him to be — even in this game itself, Hendricks said, “A little bit in third and then in the fourth, it clicked” — but it just hasn’t been there as often as he needs it to be.
But no matter. Hendricks knows there’s a process to making it through an entire season at a high level, and he knows there’s still work he needs to put in to get there.
There have been early-season struggles in Hendricks’ career before, but he’s managed to get the ball rolling nearly every time. So he has all the faith that the work he puts in now will get him to that high level sooner rather than later.
“Being a starter, taking the ball every fifth day — consistency is what you’re striving for,” Hendricks said. “It starts with pitch to pitch for me, and I’m just not having that right now. It’s kind of been one game to the next. When I do do the right things and it’s there, I see the right action and the right angle, which I really didn’t have at all last year. So it’s just locking these things in, creating consistency. Gotta keep working.”
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